Chernobyl Trailer

The meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Russia was an international disaster in 1984. Plenty of investigations and reporting occurred in the aftermath, but now whole generations have been born and come of age since then. HBO’s new miniseries Chernobyl puts viewers inside the meltdown with the plant workers, Russian scientists, doctors, nurses and soldiers in the mid-‘80s.

Chernobyl is a change of pace for screenwriter Craig Mazin. Mazin has had a lucrative career in studio comedies, with credits that include the Scary Movie franchise and the Hangover series, as well as plenty of uncredited work on Hollywood blockbusters. Mazin also co-hosts the Script Notes podcast with John August, where they discuss the ins and outs of screenwriting and current trends in the industry.

Mazin spoke with /Film by phone before Chernobyl premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Chernobyl premieres tonight at on HBO and airs in six parts total.

I of course know that writers can write lots of different things but was it tough to convince the industry that you could do a serious historical drama?

As it turns out, it’s not that hard because the commitment isn’t that tremendous. I mean, when you’re talking about writing in television, almost all of my work had been in features and as you pointed out almost all in comedy. So then I come along to television, I said, “Look, this is something I want to do.” And they’re like okay, well, you know, we like everything you have to say. So here’s a deal to write a script of one episode. It’s not a massive risk on their part. The big risk on their part was getting that first script and saying, “Okay, yes. We want to commit to making a whole series.” Then I guess once they saw that first script, they felt pretty comfortable about it.

How did the first script sell them on it when most of the main characters aren’t even in it?

I think one of the things that helped in that regard was that you make a deal to write one script but you also make a deal to write a show bible. My show bible was very extensive. They could see everything laid out very clearly in terms of all the characters and the story, but it helped to have this rather lengthy document. I did that knowing full well that, as you point out, the first episode is different than the other ones. You’re smart and observant to note that

It seems like every hour introduces a new element. Was that structure obvious to you or tough to figure out that the first would focus on the meltdown. The second would introduce the scientists. The third would spend more time in the hospital, the fourth with the soldiers?

Yes, this was all intentional in part because I wanted to keep showing people different aspects and facets of this very complicated event, and I never wanted anyone to feel comfortable. This show doesn’t really lean on any sense of what I call soap opera. It’s not about that. It really is about taking these very broad and very different looks at this event which was, at times, horrifying but also kind of inspiring. It is a political thriller. It’s a horror movie. It’s a scientific inquiry. It’s a courtroom drama. It’s pretty much everything and that’s because that’s kind of how it worked out in real life.

Are Valery and Boris sort of like an odd couple?

Yes and no. I think they are both struggling with the same problem but in very different ways, and I think this was quite true to what was going on on the ground during the events of Chernobyl. You had people who were true believers. They were so innocent and grew up within the Soviet power system. Valery Legasov was a dedicated communist. Some even asserted that he was a zealot. And Boris Scherbina was a lifelong party apparatchik. He was a bureaucrat, and they were both part of the Soviet system. I think going through the process of Chernobyl forced them to confront how that system had failed and what their places were within it. There are different kinds of people who have had different kinds of jobs, and yet, uh, they are forced to find some sort of common ground. I think for them and for everyone, I suspect, that worked through Chernobyl, the common ground was Chernobyl itself. It just disallowed for any rational person, it disallowed the ability to just continue along in a state of kind of ideological denial.

I guess because I’ve seen a lot of movies, I see two people paired together at odds push each other’s buttons until they find a common ground. Maybe that’s a trope because it’s true of people in real life.

It is. Our culture reflects back what is true. It doesn’t always reflect it back reliably. It can distort things. In this case, what I tried to do was bring them to a place where I recognize, in particular, when Boris Scherbina understands in due course of episode two that he’s going to die, everything changes for him. I think all of his bluster, the real Scherbina was a notorious screamer who tried to fix things by yelling them into existence. Something as big as Chernobyl and as devastating as Chernobyl kind of robs you of that ability. It takes your tools away. Here was somebody who was used to a certain kind of power and a certain way of imposing himself, and it was taken from him by Chernobyl. His life was taken from him by Chernobyl. And in the moments following that, I think he comes to understand that he is there for a greater cause. So what unifies them insomuch, it’s not a bromance, it’s more of two men coming to grips with a kind of existential purpose that is a shared purpose. Through that, they can see each other’s humanity.

Does Chernobyl illustrate an unfortunate universal truth that no one ever wants to listen to the person who knows what’s really happening?

Yes. And we see that more and more now which is why I thought it was so important to tell this story now. We are struggling with the global war on the truth. And if what we used to think of as the domain of the Soviets, the kind of celebration of lies and press as propaganda, that now we realize is not something that is unique to the Soviet state. It’s within ourselves as well here in the West. And it’s here. We’ve seen it in the United Kingdom right now and we’re all struggling with it. The strange rejection of the expert is mind boggling to me. When we’re told that the worst word in politics is “elite,” I have to wonder whom else are we supposed to be rooting for if not the most qualified and smart and informed people? We live in a strange world now where scientists are routinely mocked and the truth is questioned at all turns and we are suffering from it. And the one thing that Chernobyl makes clear, and this is the big point of it all, the truth doesn’t care. It doesn’t care if we ignore experts. It doesn’t care if we degrade the entire concept of expertise. The climate will keep changing and similarly in reactor number four, bad things continue to happen whether we wanted them to or not.

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